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It’s my party: Louis XIV at Jack Rabbit Slims.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Glam Sham

By John Brodeur

Louis XIV

Jack Rabbit Slims, March 16

It seems almost quaint, looking back, that the whole campaign surrounding Louis XIV’s 2005 debut was built on an exploitative album cover (ooh, asscrack!) and a glammy, borderline racist single (“Finding Out True Love Is Blind”) that played out as a list of girls singer Jason Hill would like to fuck—not specific names, mind you, but rather a variety of racial epithets (not in the bad way, but still). Underneath the din of so many parental groups throwing their hands up in disgust, little about the band even bordered on provocative; their lyrics practiced a certain inane innuendo (sample: “Sing, sing me a song/And bang me like the girls in Hong Kong”), and the songs came with few actual hooks. For a band who were, for an eyeblink, the “next Strokes,” Louis XIV came off as third-rate Kings of Leon. And if you can’t figure out why that’s funny, stop reading now.

All joking aside, Hill and company seem to have recognized their limitations and, on their new Slick Dogs and Ponies disc, they’ve attempted a change in direction . . . sort of. The same could be said for Albany’s snazzy new rock spot, Jack Rabbit Slims, which is still in an “at Noche” phase after a few months of operation: Some new stuff (televisions, beer signs, a stage) has been brought in to complement aspects (the bar, the Noche sign) of the old décor. The parallels are apt: The venue uses paper lanterns and exposed brick in an effort to make people forget they’re in a rock club (worth a shot); the band employ unusual twists on conventional rock production to disguise their half-baked ideas (the verse-verse-solo-solo-solo form is underutilized, I say).

Louis XIV brought some of their next-Strokes boogie to Jack Rabbit Slims on Sunday night, and somehow their fifth-grade poetry seemed almost prescient. Take, for instance, “Paper Doll,” where Hill punctuated the otherwise vapid phrase “Politics are so much better when there’s sex” with “That’s the fuckin’ truth, Spitzer!” If that’s not a pointed “I told you so,” I don’t know what is.

Rather than try to re-create their albums’ sometimes complex sonics (though the addition of two violin players was an attempt to compensate), the band resorted to plain old rocking out. That’s not to say their style-to-substance ratio improved—they’re still less T-Rex than, say, the Darkness—but the overall effect is better taken when watching Hill chug from a wine bottle and grimace through a three-minute guitar solo, flanked by video images of girls writhing around in their underwear. And the funny bits were somehow funnier in person, mostly because the answer to the question often raised by their records—namely, “Are they smirking at me or not?”—was all over guitarist-vocalist Brian Karscig’s face during “Sometimes You Just Want To,” where his obvious joy in singing the line “You use fuckin’ as an adjective” nearly eclipsed the fact that his voice is as annoying as the song’s “pretentious” subject matter. Karscig redeemed himself on the marginally Badfinger-esque “Air Traffic Control,” where hackneyed aviation metaphors meet shambolic pop sensibilities to form what’s basically an above-average Jet song.

This was more Karscig’s show than it deserved to be—Hill, with his Bon Scott-esque talk-singing and likewise penchant for the single entendre, could be Greg Dulli for the iTunes set if only he and his band could just get a better batch of material under their belts. It’s all one big sexy party right now, but eventually they’re going to have to take a page from their own lyrics and ask themselves, “Aren’t you tired of talking about sex?”

Original Gangsta

Ralph Stanley and His Clinch Mountain Boys

WAMC Performing Arts Studio, March 15

If you saw the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, you may recall the KKK rally scene where a shrouded Klansman sings the Appalachian dirge “O Death.” That was the weather-beaten but soaring voice of 81-year-old Ralph Stanley, one of a handful of first-generation bluegrass musicians still active. While Stanley’s show last Saturday at a two-thirds full Linda Norris auditorium was real-deal bluegrass played with panache, it never strayed off the beaten track of old standards. But then again, bluegrass tends to be less about the song itself than how it’s performed, and here, for the most part, Stanley and company delivered the time-honored goods.

When he began performing with his brother Carter in 1946 as the Stanley Brothers band (Carter died in 1966, after which Ralph regrouped with the Clinch Mountain Boys), Ralph made his mark as one the few tenors whose singing could rival Bill Monroe, the father of the genre, and as a banjoist whose picking could compare with Earl Scruggs. Now, in addition to Dewey Brown on fiddle, James Shelton on lead guitar, Bill Monroe alumnus Jack Cooke on bass and Steve Sparkman on banjo (Stanley broke his hip in 1994 and now seldom performs on the banjo), the family tradition has continued with son Ralph Stanley II on rhythm guitar and grandson Nathan Stanley on mandolin. Neither, though, sang as well as the patriarch, who can still swoop up to his trademark high notes despite his years.

The show was bookended with celeritous fiddle showpieces smoothly sawed out by Dewy Brown: “Lee Highway Blues” was the opener and “Orange Blossom Special,” with its daunting figure-eight bowing, the closer. After Brown’s solo, Jack Cooke sang tenor lead on “Sitting on Top of the World.” Next to Ralph Sr., Cooke’s vocals were the best in the band. Cooke also had the role of class clown, feigning drunkenness throughout the evening by pretending to stagger and slur his words.

Alan Shelton then offered a whistle-clean flat-picking guitar solo, the reel “Soldier’s Joy.” His guitar, unfortunately, was to spend the night buried in the mix. Later, mandolin genius and area resident Frank Wakefield, who briefly played with the Stanley Brothers when he was 19, sat in for a couple of numbers, including a way-cool instrumental, Bill Monroe’s “Bluegrass Stomp.”

For the second half of the show, the band took requests—I’d never seen an entire set played by anyone this way. The audience shook the tree, and chestnuts like “Pretty Polly” and “Rank Strangers” rained down before the group finally encored with another, “Little Maggie.”

Let’s hope Ralph Stanley comes back again soon.

—Glenn Weiser

Heavy Circulation

The Bad Plus

WAMC Performing Arts Studio, March 13

Ethan Iverson is the perfect straight man. Bald, bearded and bespectacled, he’s dry in a way his band’s music never is. Introducing the tune “Old Money,” Iverson naturally asked the small, devoted Linda crowd if there was any old money in Albany. One day after Eliot Spitzer’s resignation, the best answer he received was, “No, but there was some ho-money.” Iverson returned to his piano amid the din of laughter, but the episode hung as an apt representation of the Bad Plus’ coy relationship with irony. In a brazen pidgin-tongue of high and vernacular elements, the band continue to rock the jazz establishment not with musical punch lines but with a setup so deft and clever that the joke tells itself—whether or not humor was even the point.

Despite a stiff start, the Minnesota trio quickly found their bearing. With “My Friend Metatron,” Iverson began to conjure the classical doom and glory for which he’s known, while drummer David King settled into a glitchy, hyperactive pocket that would often surface as the composition’s lead texture. Big and smiley, King approaches his kit like a kids’ toy, manhandling the chintzy apparatus while offering it the precious respect of a Fisher-Price Kitchen; with his occasional use of toy percussion, this analogy became literal. Bassist Reid Anderson took a characteristically reticent role early on, acting as intermediary for the two more adventurous players. With his composition “Barrel Loves to Dance,” however, Anderson’s bombastic love of prog-rock came thundering through.

The band’s compositions are never angular, although they have a stunning propensity to throw themselves down stairs. With their cascading, chromatic piano parts and skittering, polyrhythmic drums, the amazing thing is the aplomb with which they fall, not the fact that they always land on their feet. Their (by now, signature) cover of David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” built out of free time, each instrument subtly corralling the melody, eventually moaning like Keith Jarrett at Köln, and then coalescing in a heart-stopping climax that should render critical allegations of irony entirely moot.

They know what they’re doing. “1980 World Champion” isn’t a great song because it might be about a fictitious ski jumper, and “Thriftstore Jewelry” isn’t interesting because it’s kitschy. Jazz has always breathed new life into old or ill-regarded forms. All the Bad Plus do is acknowledge that nothing is off-limits. There was a heap of hip-hop underneath King’s foot on the tune “Big Eater,” and when Anderson quoted “If I Only Had a Brain” mid-solo, it didn’t elicit a single laugh.

In fact, if the Bad Plus scored the closing scene of a movie, it would be a romantic comedy. Mid-set, Anderson’s “People Like You” was a sweet, emotive ballad. It was almost Hallmark in its sentimentality, but by the time Iverson’s piano solo began, the camera started to zoom out. The guy had gotten the girl; they embraced as the supporting characters looked on. The camera climbed through the sun-dappled trees. Iverson brought us higher, past a rainbow and into the clouds, through the atmosphere and into milky nebulae. As galaxies whirled in cheery schmaltz, the band proved they meant every note of it. Without looking back, they took the theme through a rift in space-time, up from the subatomic field, to the molecular level, and into the main character’s bloodstream. With clamoring major chords and triumphantly splashing cymbals, the camera settled, against John Hughes’ better judgment, in the character’s (our) rosy, made-for-TV aorta.

Roll credits; cue standing-O.

—Josh Potter

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